Cancel culture seemed, for a while, to be a reaction to celebrity culture. Like mortals scaling Mount Olympus to steal a thunderbolt or two, we had grown weary of blind worship. Determined to take back a little power, we watched closely, and whenever one of our gods proved unworthy of our ideals, we pounced. Social media magnified the act, and what followed was a good old-fashioned boycott, no different from refusing to eat bluefin tuna or wear fur.
“Cancel” was a better word than boycott, though. Not only do celebs suffer when their shows or appearances are canceled, but Americans, the consummate consumers, knew just how much influence we wield when we cancel subscriptions, streaming services, or credit cards. We like to be begged back.
We also like our gods to apologize. Better yet, we like them to reform, which seldom happens. Instead, they bring in publicists and, in time, fame is restored.
Still, canceling is a sneaky and effective way of calling out people whose behavior we find objectionable. What disturbs me is not its initial targets— they have packaged themselves for our enjoyment, and fame by its very definition demands a certain amount of exposure—but how it has spread, and how transactional it is. We are forcing people to be accountable for their moments of inhumanity by treating them as commodities that can be discarded, rejected, made to disappear.
How many celebrities—who are, though we simultaneously thrill to remember and forget this, mere mortals themselves—have died from fame’s exposure? A list would take too long. And as cancel culture expands, its targets are not necessarily braced for the outcome. Last November, a human rights lawyer drank way too much wine on an international flight, then spat in an attendant’s face and used a racial slur; she was sentenced to six months in prison. Her reputation was canceled online. Days after her release, she died of suicide.
Despite all the nervous urging to “cancel cancel culture” (even deliberately reticent Barack Obama has taken up the cause), the practice continues to bleed into less glamorous domains, like book publishing. Last January, Chinese-American writer Amélie Wen Zhao was excoriated for a YA fantasy novel that involved human trafficking but was perceived as a “false oppression” novel about slavery. Three months later, one of her critics, Kosoko Jackson—who regularly works as a sensitivity reader for publishers—pulled his own novel after he was nearly canceled for making his villain an Albanian Muslim.
The cause for cancellation no longer needs to be a cultural artifact or public statement; now it can simply be one’s own taste or personality. The New York Times recently rounded up teenagers who had cancelled or been cancelled by other kids at school. “It’s a way to take away someone’s power,” one said. It “takes away the option for them to learn from their mistakes and kind of alienates them,” another objected. A third described how friends she had through middle school “completely cut me off. Ignored me, blocked me on everything, would not look at me.” A fourth remarked of the canceled, “Now they’ll forever be thought of as that action, not for the person they are.”
This is more than shutting somebody out of your friend group. Masquerading as principled activism, it swipes away the other person’s existence, publicly shaming them. The alternative is the patient, adroit, emotionally exhausting practice of calling in, calmly and quietly offering a different perspective. Activist Ngọc Loan Trần wrote a beautiful defense of “calling in” back in 2013, asking, “What does it mean for our work to rely on how we have been programmed to punish people for their mistakes?”
But Loan also asked, “What happens when that someone [who is being called out] is a person we know—and love?” At that question, I bristled. Many an activist has offered a guide for speaking uncomfortable truths to allies and loved ones. What if we just pretended for a minute that strangers deserved the same consideration?
As a reporter, I made several mistakes that hurt the people I was writing about, because I used the wrong words in describing their identity or their struggle. When I was corrected gently, the words’ effect hit home with a wallop. When someone lashed out at me instead, the same insight had to run a gauntlet, slashed by swords of ego and self-defense, before it could touch and change me.
Anger operates by the law of physics, causing an equal and opposite reaction—and that delays change. But it is still preferable to the chill of outright cancellation.
Exclusion has always been an effective weapon: Authorities have exiled, banished, ostracized, excommunicated. Now, in a rush of power, we have all given ourselves the ability to cancel anyone we choose. Exile is often temporary; prodigals return home; excommunication can be reversed. But to cancel someone is to obliterate them, in the literal definition; to blot out, abolish, delete from sight or memory, render null or void or invalid, reduce to naught. In a math equation, you can cancel a common factor; I remember thinking it was a fun trick. Now it feels too apt: Canceling takes away what is common to all of us.